Recycling Benefits the Bottom Line
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Recycling Benefits the Bottom Line

For today's businesses, the path of environmental stewardship is really a journey of awareness. Becoming aware of what is thrown away sheds new light into several aspects of every business. Look inside your dumpster, what do you spend per year disposing of that waste and how much of that waste is recyclable?

By Brett Thompson, Laird Plastics

Read on...this may just get your wheels turning.

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  • Not long ago, I was invited to "career day" at our local elementary school to present to a group of sixth graders about plastics and plastic recycling. I asked two questions at the outset, to get a feel for their plastics IQ, the first one being "What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about plastics?" Almost every response had something to do with "thousands of years in landfills", "killing birds and fish", or "polluting the planet".

    The second, "How many things can you name that are made of plastic?" and the list was endless: Barbie dolls, toys, water bottles, playground equipment, etc., as well as many adult answers, like cars, airplanes, Ipods and computers. Kids knew more than I thought. The truth is, plastics are everywhere, and we use them for just about everything, but despite their benefits and daily use, there is a fundamental disconnect between consumers and the plastic industry.

    The Public-Plastic Divide
    A big part of this comes from the fact that plastics are complicated. Few people can identify one type of plastic from another, and fewer still know how to recycle them. The problem only gets worse when we include the dozens of plastics without the "number in a triangle". Among these are acrylic, polycarbonate, PETG, ABS, nylon, Teflon and acetal. By contrast, everyone can recognize cardboard, aluminum cans or copper wire, and there are overlapping networks in place to ensure only a small percentage of these materials get landfilled. The lack of transparency into plastic recycling encourages unhealthy behaviors and causes consumer frustration to fester. Plastics don't need to sit in a landfill for hundreds of years any more than aluminum cans, but the infrastructure to recycle plastics needs to improve, and the public needs to be involved.

    This is not to say that Americans have not been "recycling" plastics for many years, but herein lies the problem. What does it mean to say one recycles? If I give my scrap to a guy in a truck with a recycling logo on the door panel, am I recycling? If I stuff a shipping container full of plastic garbage, and export it to a third world country, am I recycling? If I broker scrap materials out to the highest bidder, am I recycling? Do I trust my recycler to do the right thing, and have my best interest at heart? I am in the business, and have to work hard to get satisfactory answers to many of these questions. How in the world is a sign shop, digital print provider or large format graphics house supposed to vet this process while maintaining their business?


    Recycling programs are rarely as responsible as the customer thinks they are, and the good ones are always more work than the customer thinks they should be. If your recycler tells you that anything plastic can be thrown into a single bin, chances are it's being exported. Sadly, a significant portion of North American plastic scrap is exported overseas, to be sorted by low wage laborers, burned, or made into low-cost products that are then imported back into the US. It is no longer enough to say one recycles without a detailed knowledge of the materials' chain of custody. Environmental claims must be supported by documentable fact, and there simply needs to be more transparency into the entire process.

    Recycling, Debunked
    Our domestic recycling model is based on a "reverse distribution" concept. When possible to be collected, materials are returned to manufacturing headwaters to be reincorporated or repurposed into new or existing products. This type of "closed loop" recycling requires a higher level of discipline, in terms of material segregation and cross-contamination, and is subjected to much tighter tolerances than generic scrap. The polycarbonate we collect, for example, is channeled to companies that produce polycarbonate products. Similar programs exist for several other specific plastic types. Proper collection techniques not only maximize the intrinsic value of a given material, they produce a quality feed stock that can be used easily and efficiently by plastic manufacturers, who can then produce more product(s) with higher recycled content.

    Unfortunately, not everything collected is suitable to be reincorporated into a high-performance plastic. For this reason, we have developed a "tiered" outlet strategy that minimizes landfilled waste, and looks to improve our "waste behavior". The concept is similar to that of a sifting tower. Materials are received, evaluated and aggregated in such a way as to maximize domestic recyclability and minimize disposal.

    Top Tier Extrusion Partners
    Wherever possible, we will look to channel quality scrap into our vendor base as extrusion feedstock for existing products, and the development of new materials and/or re-purposing technologies. Products produced at this level must comply with all relevant industry regulations (FDA, NASF, aeroespace, military, etc.)

    Secondary/Tertiary Extruders/Injection Molders
    Companies that produce utility products, such as picture frames, horticultural edging, flower pots, chair mats, mud flaps, etc. make up this group. Utility products in this category have a much wider tolerance for contamination and the ability to utilize dissimilar materials.

    Processing/Compounding
    Many plastics are produced from polymeric alloys or blends. In these cases, specific products are blended with other materials to produce a product with specific physical properties. Blends such as these address weatherability, impact resistance, machinability, etc.

    International Recycling Partners/Exporters
    Vetted channels in this class must be able to document their efforts and performance in regards to air and water quality standards, as well as health and saftey standards for their employees.

    Waste to Energy/Thermal Exchange
    Plastics combust at two to five times the rate of coal. We are actively engaged with several trade associations and government agencies (FDA, EPA, FTC, ACC, etc.) to identify compliant incineration facilities. Materials slated for thermal exchange are highly contaminated and not suitable for export.

    Landfill
    Material unsuitable for any of the above categories may ultimately be landfilled. But even here, we will look for composting operations, or facilities with industry leading perfomance practices.

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    Products & Business
    To that end, we started comparing various products, namely their lifecycles and approximate footprints. What we found was surprising. For example, the new "green" product (Product G) has to be extraordinary in terms of its physical properties and manufacturing processes, in comparison to the product it is looking to displace (Product A).

    Further still, Product A has to be similarly horrible for the carbon offset to make sense. Marginal product improvements supplied through fewer, less fluid supply channels are ultimately an exercise in futility. If Product A is recyclable, it is generally more sustainable than boutique green products for the simple fact of logistics. Domestic products are more sustainable than imported materials. Styrene, for example, is much more environmentally sound than most alternatives because it is produced in many different locations, and is readily recyclable. We also believe that recycling is more sustainable than biodegradeability. The addition of microbial feedstock to plastic not only encourages the very behavior we are trying to improve (landfilling versus recycling), we also run the risk of contaminating established recycling streams.

    Rarely a day goes by without fielding a call from a client looking for a "greener" product than what they are currently using. The goose chase used to begin with hours spent looking for alternatives. Once found, material claims had to be vetted; size and gauge availability had to be compared to minimum order quantities and stocking options before sampling could even begin. Oh, and did I mention price? If the new "green" product was more expensive, the customer wouldn't buy it. And then one day it dawned on me: "It's not the product; it's the process." And the process had to originate from the distribution space. Manufacturers had to be made aware of end-user concerns, and the end user has to understand the capablities and limitations of manufacturing. Until effective communication exists between the two camps, that disconnect grows wider.

    Program Implementation
    For today's businesses, the path of environmental stewardship is really a journey of awareness. Becoming aware of what is thrown away sheds new light into several aspects of every business. When looking at your dumpster, is your yield loss what you would expect? Do you see more of one material than another? How many cubic yards of waste does your facility generate per week, per month, per year? What do you spend per year disposing of that waste, and finally, how much of that waste is recyclable?

    The first time I meet with a business owner to discuss a comprehensive recycling strategy, I am invariably asked "How much is this going to cost?" Successful recycling programs actually make money. The worst case scenario should always be cost neutral or better, but you will only reap what you sow. Companies that do a good job segregating material enjoy much more success than those enamored by convenience (one bin for everything). Many people are surprised to find that some plastics are more valuable than aluminum or even copper. But a valuable plastic can quickly become worthless if it is laminated, decaled or mixed with other materials. A highlight reel that typifies the implementation of a successful recycling program might look something like this:

    "The Company" (a large-format digital printer and sign shop) retains a consultant to conduct a waste stream analysis which produces the following five data points:

    1. The 18-yard dumpster out back is dumped twice a week, generating 1,872 cubic yards of waste per year.
    2. "The Company" pays a waste hauler $300 per month in dumpster rental fees, and a $75 tipping fee every time the dumpster is taken away, resulting in a monthly cost of $900.
    3. Nearly a third of what is thrown out is cardboard.
    4. Plastic skeletons, proofs, rejects, off cuts and returns (all plastic) make up another third.
    5. The under-roof inventory includes several skids of remnants, custom colors or drops, hoarded in hopes of them being used on future projects.

    Using the above information, a baseline starting point is identified and a customized recycling program outlined.

    1. The majority of plastic scrap centers around four materials.
    2. When properly separated in accordance with agreed upon guidelines, approximately 25,000 pounds of plastic scrap can be generated per month, at an average value of $.15 per pound.
    3. Approximate monthly revenue is $3,750.
    To address the cardboard, "The Company" invests in a downstroke baler. The monthly payment for the baler is $200.

    Materials are collected, inspected and weighed, and as part of the service package, "The Company" receives detailed breakdowns. In some cases, on site collection techniques need improvement to maximize inherent value.

    A comprehensive annual report reflecting specific recycling activity is made available to "The Company". This data can be used with confidence for any sales and marketing campaign, and/or internal metrics.

    After 12 months "The Company" has replaced its 18-yard dumpster, tipped twice per week, with a six-yard unit, dumped twice per week ($100/month rental and $25 tipping fee, resulting in a monthly total of $300), and uses its recycling strategy as an effective sales tool to establish competitive advantage. They have solid data to demonstrate a 66 percent reduction in solid waste, while recycling 300,000 pounds of plastic, and several tons of cardboard.

    The Resulting Comparison
    If we compare a typical year for "The Company" prior to recycling, they would have spent $10,800 in disposal fees, and the composition of their solid waste would have been an educated guess at best. Conversely, in the first year of recycling, disposal costs would reduce by nearly half (including the baler payment), while generating $45,000 in recycling revenue. They could start ordering materials run to size or pre-cut to reduce their waste and disposal costs even further, and could get at least some value for all the unusable junk they had been storing. Their sales people are likely more energized, and are landing new business.

    Even if the above example were only half as successful, "The Company" is much better off than it was before, well above that cost neutral threshold, and poised for the future. For "The Company", the greatest accomplishment was becoming aware. Going back to the old ways would now seem archaic. There is only up, only progress, only improvement.

    We understand there is always a learning curve, and things don't change overnight. You must understand this is not a silver bullet, or a one size fits all. It is work, and requires effort. The educational component and commitment to continually improve never ends. The engine of every recycling program is a combination of quality material and volume, but the process is only as strong as its weakest link.

    The shock of recycling is that it is something we can all do today. The awe is the mind numbing impact of what would happen if we actually did. Put simply, it would change the world. There are as many reasons to embrace recycling as there are people on this earth. You might have dozens of reasons yourself. Do it for your business, your community, your family or the future. But when you do decide to implement a recycling program, own it, because everything worth doing is worth the effort.

    Brett Thompson is the director of enviromental affairs for Laird Plastics. He manages Laird's environmental business unit (LP REC Laird Plastics Recycling Environmental Consulting), which is solely committed to plastics recycling and sustainable supply chain management. Brett has served on the SGIA Environmental and Membership Committees. Laird Plastics is a Sustainable Green Printing Partnetship Gold Level Sponsor. bthompson@lairdplastics.com

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, July/August 2012 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2012 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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